I keep reading stories that say the internal combustion engine is about to become extinct and in another decade battery electric and fuel-cell cars will wipe the ICE from the face of the Earth. I don’t buy it. I think the piston engine will be around a lot longer than most people realize.
There is an impressive list of technologies automakers and suppliers are developing to improve ICEs. I’m sure you’re familiar with most of them, but let’s go through the list.
Probably the biggest change we’re going to see is with the 48V hybrid, which is coming to the European market this year. It provides 80% of the fuel efficiency benefit of a strong hybrid at only 20% of the cost. Almost every major automaker plans to offer the systems and we will see them in every major market in the world in just a matter of years.
Nissan recently introduced an engine in the Infiniti QX50 that features a variable compression ratio. It varies compression from 8:1 to 14:1, which dramatically improves the thermodynamic efficiency of the engine. It’s a 2.0L 4-cyl. that Nissan says delivers 27% better fuel efficiency than a 3.5 L V-6 even though it has roughly the same output of horsepower and torque.
A company called Freevalve, which is a spinoff from the specialty carmaker Konisegg, developed an engine without camshafts. Instead of cams it uses electro-hydraulic-pneumatic actuators. This allows each valve in each cylinder to be individually operated for optimum performance. At its current stage of development it is probably too expensive for anything but exotic sports cars. But undoubtedly the costs will come down.
A Canadian company called Advanced Technology Emission Solutions has invented an electrically heated catalytic converter. They call it the SI-CAT, or Smart Induction Catalytic Converter.
About 80% of the emissions that come out of a car are emitted in the first three minutes before the converter lights off. With the SI-CAT, they’re claiming a 30% to 90% reduction in emissions based on a Ford F-150 with the 5.0 liter V-8 engine.
Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition is a technology that enables gasoline, spark-ignited engines to perform like higher-efficiency diesels. So far automakers can get these HCCI engines to work at steady RPMs, but have a difficulty controlling combustion as the engine revs up and down. But a company called Nautilus Engineering says it solved those issues by mixing the charge outside of the cylinder and using a unique piston design. This technology won’t be production ready for some years, but it looks promising.
All the technologies I’ve listed could be added to today’s engines. Several entrepreneurs are working on completely new engine designs.
Probably the most promising of these is the opposed piston engine being developed by Achates Power. There is no cylinder head and no valve train. It’s about two-thirds the size of a comparable diesel engine. Achates put a 2.2L version in a Nissan Titan pickup and claims it delivers 37 mpg (6.4L/100 km). Achates has invested over $100 million in developing this engine and says it has nine manufacturers who have licensed it.
Several other developments that will help the ICE involve advancements in fuel. Automakers, such as General Motors, already are publicly calling for higher-octane gasoline in the U.S. to meet the 2025 emission standards. That would allow them to raise compression ratios and get better thermodynamic efficiency from all engines.
Compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas and biofuels can burn very cleanly and have much smaller carbon footprints. Moreover, the EPA is asking the oil industry to produce decarbonized gasoline, that is, gasoline with less carbon content. That alone could significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions from every engine on the road today without any major modifications.
Tim Jackson, the former CTO of Tenneco, made a terrific point. “If you're driving a 2017 vehicle in a city like Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, you're already helping clean the air of hydrocarbons, because the emissions coming out the tailpipe actually are cleaner than the air that's going into the air filter.
“By 2025 we are going to be doing it for NOx and for particulate matter as well. So we're actually going to be cleaning the air as we drive the vehicle and if you're driving a battery-electric vehicle you're not helping clean the air."
Because it takes 20 years to turn the fleet over, the ICE will be around until at least the middle of this century, and probably beyond that. Companies that build a business strategy around this knowledge will do well because so many others are buying into the myth the piston engine is doomed.